Universities are bracing for an inevitable financial abyss as they scramble to come to grips with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, Universities UK (UUK) sent a proposal to the government, in which they warned that without support some institutions will face complete financial failure, and others would come so close to failure that they will be forced to “reduce provisions for students, or significantly scale back research activities and capacity”.
The proposal predicts that universities across the UK will face losses of £790 million from accommodation, catering, and conference alone, with an additional £6.9 billion at risk from lost international student fees. As such, Universities UK have asked for an immediate uplift of around £2 billion, alongside other specific measures which seek to protect research, and a controversial one-off return to student number controls, or “caps”.
UUK’s Chief Executive Alastair Jarvis said that the package will help to “protect the student interest, to maintain research capacity, to prevent institutions failing and maintain the capacity to play a central role in the recovery of the economy and communities following the crisis,”. He added that in return, universities “will act collectively and responsibly to promote sector-wide financial stability in these challenging times and help the country to get back on its feet and people to rebuild their lives”.
The proposal has been welcomed by some, but UCU has said that it “does not go far enough”. General Secretary Jo Grady said: “This looks like a piecemeal approach that fails to recognise the size of the problem, or the damage we risk doing to our academic capacity. We need a fundamental shift in how universities operate if we are to protect our institutions, staff and students, and to ensure higher education can play its vital role in the recovery.”
Some universities fear that caps on admissions will create a space for the competitive “stockpiling” of domestic students. UCU said the government should “rein in” Russell Group Universities from “hoovering up more students from the newer, post 92 universities” by “providing proper underpinning for the whole sector, and insist on more effective cooperation from universities.”
At other universities, staff have or will have their contracts terminated in an effort to save money. Staff on precarious contracts at Bristol and Newcastle University have already been issued redundancy notices, while the University of Sussex is preparing to terminate the contracts of any “non-essential” staff “as soon as possible”. This came just weeks after university staff embarked on the longest strike in history, with casualised contracts and precarity being one of their largest concerns.
In an email to staff conveying a new financial review, Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell said that the university is in a “solid financial position”, but “it is imperative that we now move to a vastly different mode of thinking and behaviour when it comes to our budgets and how we spend the University’s cash.”
The financial review reads: “Non-essential assignments currently held by temporary or agency staff will need to be reviewed and come to an end as soon as possible. Where there is capacity, tasks should be undertaken by staff members of your team or nonessential tasks may need to be temporarily suspended in order to focus on core business activity”.
On April 30, a grassroots campaign – ‘Crisis Justice at Sussex’ – was launched by the University of Sussex trade union branches (UCU, Unite, and Unison). The campaign seeks to protect temporary and casualised workers at Sussex in light of the controversial financial review, which proposes the termination of hundreds of contracts. The unions reject the argument that contracts must be terminated in order to offer the University financial stability, pointing out that Sussex “is in the top 20% of British Higher Education institutions, holds over £300 million in unrestricted reserves, and over 60 of its employees in 2019 earned six-figure salaries, including Adam Tickell whose basic salary is over £300,000 per annum (seventeen times that of the lowest-paid full-time worker at Sussex, who earns £17,361).”
The group have launched a petition and issued a call for support from both staff and students. The petition demands that the University “immediately and fully withdraw the financial review”, ensure no detriment to pay and conditions of students and precarious workers, and extend contracts for all casualised employees until the Covid-19 crisis is over.
UCU Executive member, Andrew Chitty, said:
“The cuts proposed by the University’s leadership are the worst possible response to the Covid crisis. They target the job security and futures of our most insecurely employed colleagues while leaving the pay and conditions of those at the top virtually untouched. They are the executive equivalent of upper-class panic buying.”
Another concern facing universities is the projected loss from international student fees. Many institutions are predicting an 80-100% drop in EU and Non-EU student admissions in the coming academic year, amounting to a loss of around £6.9 billion. What is more, many universities rely upon international student fees to subsidise research. A Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report found that international students pay an average of £5,000 more than their UK counterparts – and it is this surplus that is used to fund vital research endeavors. Russell Group universities rely most heavily on the additional funding garnered from international student fees, fuelling the fear that they may attempt to “hoover up” domestic students to try and soften the financial blow on their institutions.
This might however prove difficult, as many students are facing their own financial crises. For example, International students at the University of Sussex have appealed for a reduction to their tuition fees, stating that they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Accessibility is one issue: some students in China cannot access course material because of strict internet censorship, and others are facing the prospect of taking their exams in the middle of the night due to time difference.
Another issue is one of fairness: international students feel that it is unfair that they should pay so much more (£5,000 more, according to HEPI’s analysis) for online classes, which they say is an inadequate replacement for face-to-face teaching: “the University cannot justify charging the same fees for a rushed compilation of online resources that are not equivalent to the course as originally offered; Particularly where the online teaching is rushed, overcrowded and not a part of the initial plan”.
150 students at Sussex have begun a “rent strike”, withholding an estimated £200,000 in fees from the University. In an open letter, they said: “The reduction in hours of casual employment, increase in personal caregiving roles, and in some instances, the issuing of redundancy notices is now adding unparalleled pressure to students, many of whom were already struggling to make ends meet.” Taking all these unprecedented factors into consideration, the striking students believe that third term rent must be waived to ensure fairness to students negatively impacted by the pandemic.
On 4 May, the government revealed their ‘bailout’ package for higher education. In short, they rejected UUK’s proposal, and instead opted to shift existing university finances. The package will see the re-introduction of student number controls for the first time since 2013, £100 million of QR research funding brought forward to this academic year, and advanced payments of tuition fees worth £2.6 billion from the Student Loans Company.
This approach has raised more questions than answers. The £2.6 billion tuition fee advancement will only work if students return to universities in the coming academic year, and it does little to solve the projected loss of international student fees (the surplus of which is used to prop up research at many institutions).
Universities Minister Michelle Donnellan also announced that students will be expected to pay full tuition fees in the coming academic year, and will also not be entitled to tuition fee reimbursements. Ms Donnellan said: “We’ve always said that we don’t believe students would be entitled to reimbursement for tuition fees if the quality is there.” How the quality of teaching will be measured is thus far unknown.
University staff, students, and unions have expressed their disappointment with the package. UCU said “This package does not deliver the protection or stability that students, staff and the communities they serve so desperately need … the student number cap is a misnomer as it will enable the wealthiest universities to substantially grow their domestic student base at the expense of other more locally-focussed institutions.”
Even with the long-awaited bailout package, the fate of universities, casualised staff, students, and higher education itself hangs in the balance.
The Badger has approached the University of Sussex regarding their plans to terminate short-term contracts. We have also asked for clarification regarding what they consider to be “non-essential” work.